Originally published on December 4, 2017

I developed a list of maxims in response to a discussion led by Verna Allee and hosted by the Association of Knowledgework. Verna asked community members “what, for you, are the tried and true ‘classics’ and what are the newer or ‘emergent’ maxims that you find yourself relying on in your current conversations?” Verna’s question, and the ensuing discussion, prompted me to create the list that is the starting point for this article.


  1. Maxims

Section 1: Maxims

1. A Maxim a Day Keeps Disaster Away by Verna Allee

max . im (noun)

  1. a succinct or pithy saying that has some proven truth to it

Five years ago, an AOK dialogue serendipitously began what we now know as the STAR Series. Yipes! Has it really been that long? Steve Denning (then at the World Bank) and his colleagues Michel Pommier and Leslie Shneier asked if ‘rules of KM’ were forming and started us off with a few pithy principles of KM such as:

  • Knowledge sharing is essential to economic survival

In the late 1990s we had Larry Prusak’s enemies of knowledge management that included cautions against mechanistic thinking, over reliance on technology, top down KM. He reminds us that knowledge is in groups — not individuals. I proposed a “delightful dozen” of my own in my 1997 book with things like “knowledge is messy; knowledge seeks community, no one is in charge” and so on.

Lately I have been trying to “catch” myself and notice what maxims keep falling from my lips on a fairly regular basis. I can’t help but notice that they seem to have changed or evolved over time to quite a different set. (This is a good thing I think because it might indicate that I am teachable and accidentally learning something from time to time.)

So, for this stint on STAR Series (gosh, I love that title!) I thought it would be fun to have a conversation around our “favorite maxims” and “hot questions.” We all have favorite little maxims and pithy sayings that come up over and over in our conversations. Can we reflect on what we are relying on most heavily at this particular point and what is the larger issue underlying it? These might be tried and true classics or might be ones that have come to the forefront as being especially compelling or meaningful right now.

What are the tried and true principles that you have come to believe in even more deeply than when we began? What has withstood the test of time? For me I think one would most surely be those around community: knowledge seeks community (Allee), knowledge is in groups (Prusak) and communities of practice are the heart and soul of knowledge sharing (Denning et al.). That was a theme we all hit on in the beginning and it seems to have become an even stronger theme today. In fact I cannot think of a single company known for excellence in knowledge sharing that does not use a communities of practice strategy. They might call it something else — knowledge networks, expert communities or something like that — but the supporters and champions are quite explicitly applying community of practice principles.

What are some of the other “classics” that have withstood the test of time and practice? What are the ones that people still find most relevant today?

I notice too that there are also some “emergent” maxims that I am relying on quite a bit. What are the new principles and issues that are beginning to emerge and how do they help us tell our KM story? What are we saying or emphasizing differently today than what we might have said a year ago? Where are the edges of a real breakthrough in perspective for us personally, more broadly across our field, in management practices, or more directly within an organization you are working with?

Here is an example of a somewhat newer one that I find myself iterating over and over: “We are moving from a world of jobs to a world of roles.” This shift of perspective is critical in understanding the changing foundations of how we organize work. As we become more and more networked people we negotiate more around projects and our roles in the project. Yet, we are often stuck in job descriptions that don’t allow for these other roles. LaVeta Gibbs, whose group heads up all the contact centers around the world for Cisco sums it up pretty well. She says, “Our group is funded for the obvious role of providing knowledge to the customer. Yet we are capable of playing and even expected to play other roles. We play an analyst role in understanding the customer feedback we get, an advisory role into the strategy and decision-making activities, a consulting role to production and we are innovation partner for development. How can we make those other roles more visible, supported and appreciated both in my own group and in the larger organization?”

Another little principle I put forward is to remind people that we just made up the concept of “the firm.” I love this quote from Peter Drucker in 2000 for Fast Company. “The corporation as we know it will not survive the next 25 years. Legally and financially perhaps, but not structurally and not economically.” (Of course we are now 6 years into that prediction.) What if “the firm” as we know it becomes just one organizational form of many? What is emerging? Then how do we organize, how do we make decisions, how will accountability work? If we are truly in a world of collaboration, roles and projects then we will need to learn how to “make up” very different forms of organizations, yet as a general business population this is not something we have been trained to do.

A personal favorite and one that usually sparks a lively discussion around leadership is “You cannot administer a network you can only serve it.” Our illusion of and desire for control is so pervasive in business thinking that this maxim requires an enormous shift of perspective. I first heard something similar from Meg Wheatley who says, “You cannot fight a network with a hierarchy.” This principle is proving quite powerful in my business conversations.

Here is another one that I find is a powerful punch line: “If you don’t have a way to tell your story other people will make it up for you.”

Everywhere I go now people are expressing deep frustration with the performance indicators that are driving their decision making — and they feel helpless to fight them. Their “hot question” is “how can we fight back?” When we explore this we find that they are being given mostly industrial age performance indicators or financial measures such as financial ROI, revenue and cost reduction, which are mandated by some politician or CEO. In KM we have rather conveniently side stepped the educational work around the intangibles story and now it is coming back to bite us in an uncomfortable part of our anatomy. Without this foundation the people we are asking to support our efforts have no way to tell the story of why we should do it or demonstrate the big wins on the non-financial aspects of building capability. There is a learning curve in how to speak this language and I see KM people expressing the same frustration with metrics — where in my view it is our job to develop, tell and educate people into that new story. Even when I introduced this topic in the last STAR Series it generated more whining than productive suggestions for how to get on with the job.

Here are a couple of other quickies:

  • Transformation happens one darn person at a time. (Sigh)

Anyway, you get the drift. So I am curious — what, for you, are the tried and true “classics” and what are the newer or “emergent” maxims that you find yourself relying on in your current conversations?

2. 36 Useful Maxims for knowledge sharing, leadership, and personal growth

Knowledge Sharing and Reuse

1. We are stuck with “knowledge management” as a recognized term, but we can use better terms when we communicate, such as “knowledge sharing and reuse.”

2. Place more emphasis on connecting people than on collecting documents.

3. Despite the oft-stated goal of learning from past mistakes, we keep repeating them. To prevent this, work out loud, ask if anyone has done something similar before, and search for reusable materials and experience before starting a new effort.


4. The sooner you can try out an idea, the better.

5. A prototype or pilot can be useful immediately, and you can learn how to improve it from the users.

6. Prolonged study and planning cycles are not as useful as rapid prototyping and frequent incremental improvements.


7. Be as inclusive as possible in community membership, rather than restrictive. What’s the harm of an outsider joining? Maybe they will learn something, share useful information, or be able to answer a question. So don’t keep out potential members — welcome them in!

8. Take some time to stimulate community conversations.

  • Enable posting and replying by email to the community discussion board, and suggest that all members subscribe to email notifications

9. Face-to-face knowledge sharing is not a luxury (from Bruce Karney). It is essential to building and sustaining trust.

Killer App for Social Networking

10. Find a killer application for social networking within your organization, analogous to external ones such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Commercial software options include Chatter, Facebook at Work, IBM Connections, Jive, and Yammer.

11. A killer app will get people to voluntarily sign up and maintain their personal information and networks.

12. Link your key knowledge initiatives to this killer app (e.g., sharing, innovating, reusing, collaborating, and learning).


13. Leaders should be open, honest, authentic, accessible, and responsive. People want to follow good leaders who are inspirational, straightforward, and fair.

14. Bad leaders eventually get what they deserve, although it often appears to take too long for this to happen.

15. Set no more than three goals, and keep them simple and easy to remember.

16. You can’t make yourself a leader by proclaiming that you are in charge. You must command respect through your words and deeds, and by leading by example.


17. Good communication matters. Use language carefully, correctly, and clearly.

18. Avoid buzzwords, confusing jargon, and corporate speak.

19. Tell the truth. People can easily tell when you are lying.


20. Most community members, meeting attendees, and conference call participants are reluctant to speak up. They are glad to lurk and listen, but they prefer that others lead discussions.

21. People are more willing to enter questions and comments electronically during a conference call than to speak up and ask a question on the phone. So provide a way for them to do so, anonymously, if possible.

22. People are more willing to talk about a success story than they are to fill in a form to report on it, even if filling in the form takes less time. So find ways to get them to talk about their successes, and fill in the forms for them.

Crowd Behavior

23. People jump on bandwagons, follow fads, and use the latest buzzwords. How about you? Do you follow the crowd? Do you take quizzes to find out what kind of person you are? Do you “reach out” to “amazing” people with an “ask?”

24. If you send out a legitimate message to a large distribution list requesting input, you will receive a limited number of replies.

25. If you send out a message perceived as spam and include the distribution list in the TO or CC fields, many people will reply to all asking to be removed from the list, asking others to stop replying to all, or saying “me, too.” This is what I call an email storm, and it may not subside for hours or days.

Workforce Reduction

26. The people who are affected by downsizing are often the people with the most critical knowledge and skills. As a result, laid-off workers often have to be brought back as consultants or contractors.

27. Many of those who survive downsizing are not valuable to the organization, leading the rest of the organization to wonder why these people are still employed.

28. The people who send spam and reply to all (as described above under the third point in “Crowd Behavior”) are good candidates for downsizing.

Personal Growth

29. Don’t hide — engage. Take a risk, get outside your comfort zone, and challenge yourself to try something new. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know, and connect to them in LinkedIn. Ask or answer a question in a community, on a call, or at a meeting. Participate in or lead a discussion.

30. Submit an abstract for a presentation at a conference. Write an article and send it to a publication. Tweet, post to LinkedIn, or blog. You will be rewarded by the results.

31. Try out tools and processes yourself. Learn first-hand what works well and what does not. You will be able to empathize with other users, learn useful techniques, and become recognized as an expert. Be hands-on, use the tools of the trade, and practice what you preach.


32. Expand your personal network. Talk to other people at conferences. Contact other people, including those who don’t know you and those who are famous. You will be surprised at how many people will be glad to interact with you, become part of your network, or join a community that you lead or participate in.

33. Share relentlessly. Look at each useful piece of information you receive, read, or create and ask, “who else could use this?” If others can benefit from it, share using Twitter, LinkedIn, Enterprise Social Networking, or a relevant community threaded discussion.

34. When you contact someone else, even if just sharing a minor piece of information, often it will lead to an unexpected benefit. They will be prompted to ask you question, share an idea, make a suggestion, or schedule a time to catch up, all of which will be helpful.

35. Rely on your colleagues. Ask them to review what you are working on, and they will give you good advice. If you do good things for others without concern for what’s in it for you, your colleagues will be glad to reciprocate.

And here is one final maxim:

36. Pundits are usually wrong.

3. Additional Maxims

Section 2: Benefits

1. 15 Knowledge Management Benefits

  1. Enabling better and faster decision making

2. Enterprise Social Networks: Benefits

  1. The most effective and efficient way to share, ask, find, answer, recognize, inform, and suggest (SAFARIS).
  • Time to receive responses: Faster

3. Additional Benefits

Section 3: Visions

1. My vision for how knowledge management should work

  1. People, process, and technology elements are in place to enable everyone to conveniently Share, Innovate, Reuse, Collaborate, and Learn

2. Enterprise Social Networks: Vision

  1. There is one (and only one) global network for all people in the organization.

3. Additional Visions

Section 4: Insights and Nuggets

1. A Baker’s Dozen Insights

  1. Collect content; connect people

2. 10 Sets of Knowledge Nuggets

  1. Prima donnas — be vigilant, coach privately, stand up to them

3. 5 Reasons for Starting a KM Program

  1. An outside consultant advises management to start a KM initiative.

4. Additional Insights

5. Blog Posts

  1. Collaboration

Section 5: Issues and Principles

1. 15 Issues in Knowledge Management

  1. Getting senior leaders to provide funding, demonstrate support, and lead by example.

2. 10 Principles for Successful Communities

  1. Communities should be independent of organization structure; they are based on what members want to interact on.

3. Enterprise Social Networks: Principles

  1. Don’t be too heavy-handed or you will scare away users; tell them how to use the ESN for their gain, not what is prohibited.

4. 5 questions to answer before starting a new community

  1. Is there an existing community which covers the topic or a related one?

5. 8 reasons for working out loud and narrating your work

  1. Multiple people may need to know what is going on, to read updates, and to reply

6. 10 reasons to share your knowledge

  1. Helps you learn

7. Additional Issue and Principles

Section 6: Tips and Techniques

1. 5 Steps for Implementing KM

  1. Create a Top 3 Objectives List of challenges and opportunities which your KM program will address.

2. 10 Priorities for a Knowledge Management Program

  1. Put a strong KM leader in place, and ensure that the KM team has only strong members.

3. 10 Tips for Starting a KM Program

  1. Identify the top 3 objectives for your program and focus on meeting the biggest needs of your organization.

4. 10 ways leaders can create a knowledge-sharing system

  1. Sell the benefits

5. 10 Tips for Leading Communities

  1. Carefully choose the community topic

6. 15 Tips for Newsletters

  1. Publish once a month — more often is too frequent, and less often is not frequent enough

7. 20 Tips for Good Conversations

  1. Ask questions to stimulate discussion — include questions that everyone can answer without fear of being wrong.

8. 10 Tips for Successful Face-to-Face Meetings

  1. Ask the participants to help review and approve the agenda, using your organization’s enterprise social network (ESN).

9. 10 Ways to Build Expertise in Knowledge Management

  1. Assess yourself

10. 10 Rules for Asking Others to Share Knowledge by Bruce Karney

  1. Make the subject line very specific; use 5–10 words, not 2–3.

11. 10 ways to stimulate innovation

  1. Ask communities of practice, both internal and external, for ideas.

12. 10 Knowledge Retention Methods

  1. Make sure you have a knowledge management program in place — don’t wait until people are about to retire or depart

13. Ten Leadership Tips

  1. Follow your passions — play to your strengths

14. Four Fundamentals of Leadership

  1. Practice and reward caring, sharing, and daring — caring for others, sharing what you know, and daring to try new ideas

15. The Right Stuff of Leadership

  • Do what is right — logically, financially, morally, ethically, and environmentally — with decency, integrity, and fairness

16. Additional Tips and Techniques

Section 7: Myths, Pitfalls, and Sins

1. 37 Knowledge Management Myths

  1. Push it

2. Top 40 Knowledge Management Pitfalls

  1. Trying to take on too much

3. 20 knowledge-sharing sins

  1. Obsessing over analytics, producing slides with nice-looking (but insight-poor) graphs, or cutting data in every possible way in lieu of taking action

4. 10 Fragile Practices

  1. Maturity models and benchmarking

5. 16 Reasons Why People Don’t Share Their Knowledge

  1. They don’t have time.

6. Additional Myths, Pitfalls, and Sins

Section 8: Questions and Answers

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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